Federal Rules for Teachers Are Relaxed
The Department of Education's announcement of new leeway in meeting federal teacher-quality demands was praised as welcome relief by many education leaders. But others, including two pivotal congressional Democrats, charged that the action would lower expectations for teachers in rural communities.
Facing widespread complaints about the workability of central requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush administration unveiled its latest attempt at providing flexibility in the law on March 15. This time, department leaders focused on the law's mandate for ensuring that all public schools have "highly qualified" teachers in the core subjects by the end of the 2005-06 school year.
The policy changes come on the heels of the relaxation of provisions for testing students with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency. Agency officials hinted at still more alterations in the pipeline. ("Paige Softens Rules on English-Language Learners," Feb. 25, 2004.)
Secretary of Education Rod Paige said at a press conference held here to announce the changes that they respond to "some common themes" the agency has been hearing in recent months. He and other officials emphasized repeatedly that the latest round did not come out of the blue, but was spurred by extensive conversations in the field—comments presumably aimed at preempting any criticism that the department's action was politically motivated, especially in an election year.
"The No Child Left Behind Act is still in its very early stages," the secretary said. "It was only nine months ago that every state sent in its accountability plan."
Raymond J. Simon, the department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, listed the guiding principles in devising the teacher-quality revisions as "staying within the law, what makes common sense, and what's practical for states and school districts to implement."
5,000 Rural Districts
The latest announcements focus on three areas.
First, teachers in rural school districts who are highly qualified in at least one subject will have three years to satisfy that criterion in the additional subjects they teach. They must also be provided with professional-development programs, intense supervision, or structured mentoring to help them become competent in those other subjects.
The Education Department estimates that nearly 5,000 districts, about one-third of all school systems in the nation, are considered rural under federal law and would gain the flexibility.
In effect, eligible teachers who are now in the classroom would have until the end of the 2006-07 school year, and newly hired ones would have three years from their hiring dates.
Second, states may allow science teachers in any school to demonstrate that they are highly qualified either in the "broad field" of science or in individual fields, such as biology or chemistry.
Lastly, states will be able to streamline the law's alternative method for current teachers of multiple subjects to meet the "highly qualified" mandate. Called a "high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation," or HOUSSE, the provision enables those teachers to demonstrate subject-matter competence if they don't want to go back for more formal schooling or take and pass a subject-matter test.
Under the revisions, such teachers could choose to demonstrate subject-matter knowledge through one procedure for all the subjects they teach.
In general, to be deemed "highly qualified" under the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers must have a bachelor's degree, full state certification or licensure, and prove that they know the subjects they teach. States already have wide latitude in setting the criteria for their teachers.
Also at the press conference last week, Secretary Paige made clear that more freedom would be forthcoming, this time on the law's requirement for ensuring that at least 95 percent of students in any subgroup—such as minority youngsters or those from low-income families—are tested.
In some states, failures to meet that requirement meant that hundreds of schools were identified as not making "adequate yearly progress" under the federal law. Mr. Paige offered no details on how the requirement might be modified.
'That Really Helps Us'
Meanwhile, the changes to the teacher-quality rules for rural schools came as good news to Steve D. Larsgaard, the superintendent of the Lander County school district in Nevada.
"That really helps us," he said. "The extra time will be very welcome in trying to meet the standard."
His district serves two communities, one the tiny town of Austin, which has some 60 students in grades K-12 and six teachers. Because of the size, teachers often must handle more than one subject.
"It's a small town of 250 people," Mr. Larsgaard said. "The nearest grocery store is 110 miles away. ... Most of rural Nevada is a lot like that. Communities are spread out."
After the announcement, "everybody was breathing a bit easier," said Wayne G. Sanstead, the state schools superintendent in North Dakota, who believes the policies for rural schools and science teachers alike will be especially helpful in his state.
"The heavy need for our teachers to be able to teach more than one subject area," he said, "that's crystal clear in 85 percent of our schools."
At the same time, Mr. Sanstead said, he's still concerned about social studies where teachers still must show separate mastery in economics, history, and other subjects. "The science piece, that really makes a big difference," he said. "Social studies continues to be [a big concern]."
Two leading Democratic lawmakers, however, sharply criticized the Education Department's revisions.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the senior Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, acknowledged in a statement last week that rural schools face an unusual challenge in recruiting and retaining high-caliber teachers.
"But," he said, "surely the administration could have used its flexibility under the law to modify the teacher-quality standard to meet the needs of rural schools, instead of granting a blunderbuss exemption that breaks the law's commitment to highly qualified teachers in a third of the nation's school districts."
"The No Child Left Behind Act," Mr. Kennedy said, "doesn't say, 'Except for rural schools.'"
Rep. George Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, also wasn't pleased. "The department is wrong to tell the parents in rural communities that their children won't have a qualified teacher for years," he said. "Instead of granting waivers, the administration should provide the leadership and resources that were promised so that we can fully implement this important law."
The No Child Left Behind Act—a major domestic priority for President Bush that won overwhelmingly bipartisan support in Congress and became law in February 2002—has come under increasing criticism in recent months, including from Republican-controlled legislatures in such states as Utah and Virginia.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has also attacked the law that he voted for more than two years ago.
With its announcement last week, the administration won over at least one congressional critic. Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., had introduced a bill in January that would give more flexibility to rural districts in meeting the teacher-quality provisions. But last week, he was on stage with department officials and made clear that the agency's action addressed his concerns.
A 'Persuasive Case'
David A. Griffith, a spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education, based in Alexandria, Va., said he was glad to see what he views as a different mindset from the Education Department in recent months.
"It's very encouraging," he said. "I like to think that not only have we made a persuasive case [for more flexibility], but we've kind of convinced them that everyone's making a good-faith effort."
Some experts, though, were still trying to comprehend the import of the department's announcements.
"I've got some states who are very excited about this, others who are saying: 'What's in here? What am I missing?' " said F. Patricia Sullivan, a deputy executive director at the Council of Chief State School Officers, located in Washington. "I don't have a good sense of what this is going to mean on the ground."
Ms. Sullivan suggested some confusion may exist about the extent of the flexibility proffered. For instance, she noted that the leeway for rural districts does not extend to the law's public-reporting requirements.
Under the law, states and districts must publicly report the percentage of classes that are not taught by highly qualified teachers, and districts must send letters to parents whose children are in such classes. Despite the additional time rural schools have been given to ensure that their teachers fulfill the law's requirements, the unqualified designations must still be made public.
"There's just some question about how helpful [the new policy] will be," Ms. Sullivan said. "We actually were trying to get them to create a third category," so that the teachers affected by the modified rules would not be considered unqualified.
Although the Education Department did not explicitly address public reporting in the materials it released last week, Assistant Secretary Simon sought to dispel any ambiguity in an interview with Education Week.
"We didn't make these teachers highly qualified by the announcement," he said. "The letters still have to go out."
Mr. Simon added: "Of course, we don't consider the letter to be a punishment of any kind. ... The types of letters probably vary from very short … to pretty explanatory letters that try to ease the parents' minds."
But to Eric Hirsch, the vice president of policy and partnerships at the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, based in Chapel Hill, N.C., much of this discussion is beside the point. His group has been researching implementation of the teacher-quality provisions in four states and 24 schools.
"What we've heard over and over again is that … the way 'highly qualified' is defined, it does not ensure quality," he said, noting, the emphasis on content knowledge but not on teaching ability.
"Having new flexibility," he said, "doesn't solve the major problem."